At its founding in 1886, the Deisel Cigar Company had only ten male employees and was run out of Henry Deisel's home.
Union activity came rather quickly to the company; the workers unionized two years after the company's founding and went on
strike for better pay. Their demands were met, so they resumed work, but the strike had hurt Henry Deisel so badly, that he
was forced to take on a pair of partners, Henry and William Wemmer. The company was then renamed Deisel-Wemmer, or DWG.
From this rather humble beginning the DWG went on to become one of the largest cigar producers in America. It wasn't always
easy, and the company had to go through some drastic changes to accomplish it. One of these major changes was in its
The workforce at Deisel-Wemmer, as already mentioned, was small and completely male at its birth. Once the company moved one block south on Main Street, it had room for more employees. A fire that broke out in 1894 again forced a move. This was a hidden blessing, however, because the new factory allowed the company to expand even further. Two hundred fifty workers were making a dozen brands of cigars by the end of the year. Demand continued to grow for these locally made cigars, and as demand grew, so did the company and its workforce.
As the workforce grew, it began to change in its composition. Though it had originally been only male, it was soon primarily composed of women. In fact, between 1906-1916, it employed 4000 women. When Deisel-Wemmer shifted its workforce to a primarily female one, it became the only real employer of women in Lima. The only two alternatives were domestic help (maids, laundresses, nannies, sewing, etc.) or retail. The problems with each of these was that most women did not want those jobs, either because of the kind of work it required or because of the fact that neither paid as well as the Deisel-Wemmer factory. Additionally, retail positions were few and far between. Pearl Hume of Lima said, "It was the only place to work." She also said that so many women were working at all because, "we were all poor, let's face it."
This lack of competition for female workers allowed the company to set any wage or company policy that it wished. After all, what would the workers do, work elsewhere? That simply was not a viable option for most women. There were so many women waiting for a job that the Company could pretty much fire anyone bucking the company and hire a replacement. There were some limits to this, but not too many, especially in the early years. Additionally, although the vast majority of the workforce was female, the management consisted entirely of males. All the salesmen were also males. This meant that the women had no chance for advancement. The most they could hope to earn was a meager raise and maybe a seat at the special table on the second floor (where only the best workers were allowed, because they went unsupervised up there.)
For quite awhile, women's wages were nothing less than horrible. In 1900, women cigar workers in Ohio were paid (on average) 12.4 cents an hour. That had only risen to 21.3 cents an hour by 1907. in 1912, Pearl Hume was making 27 ½ cents for every hundred cigars made. In 1913, only 21.2% of women were making more than $8 a week, and 67% were making under $7. At the same time, only 10% of men were making less than $7. This was always rationalized by saying that men had to support a family, while the women were just making extra money. (In 1922, this wage differential would lead to a massive strike.) Combined with the low pay was long hours. By 1908, DWG had ordered a ten-hour day every day of the week, even on Sunday. Before the holidays, mandatory overtime was always added, too. No woman was getting rich off of easy work at the DWG plant.
At Deisel-Wemmer, as in all cigar factories at that time, cigar making was done in teams, which were made up of one buncher and two rollers. Rollers could work quicker if they worked with only one buncher, because they did not have to adjust to different styles of bunching. Quite a few manufacturers trained rollers to only work with right or left handed leaves, and not both. This was done for two reasons. The first was that it cut training time; an employee only had to be trained in one job. Less training time meant increased profits. Secondly, and equally important to owners, being trained only one type of leaves often made it harder for the women to move to another job. In order to leave, a worker would have had to find an opening for someone who rolled the side that she/he did. This kept turnover down, which also meant increased profits.
In the early 1900s, a distinct culture evolved among the female workers. One area was in relation to the managers and foremen. The women created nicknames to mark each one. These names were often used to mock them. For instance, one manager was called the "Booger Man," because he "used to pick his nose." As soon an owner or foreman began his rounds, word spread like wildfire through the shop. When Henry Deisel, then co-owner of the plant, would come for an inspection, the workers were almost always prepped. They had spread the word throughout the plant, and all the "shiners" (the best cigars that had been made) were always kept just ahead of him for display.
One of the best examples of women rising up to defend their culture is the box dispute. While working, the women sat on boxes. These boxes were also used as personal boxes, containing little personal knick-knacks and odds and ends that were important to the women. NO ONE messed with another woman's box. Management decided one day that they wanted to get rid of the boxes in order to improve production. They thought it would be a minor matter. It most definitely was not. The women rose in protest, promising to walk off the job if anyone tried to take their boxes. The women's immediate and fierce opposition shocked management, causing them to back down. The issue of removing the boxes never came up again. The women might have been willing to endure the poor working conditions, but they would NOT put up with an attack on their culture.
Female workers at the DWG spent quite a bit of time socializing both inside and outside of work. The social ties and friendly atmosphere on the shop floor were very much a part of the women's culture and helped to make the job more enjoyable. Because cigar making was quiet work, and since the women sat in rows facing each other, it was quite easy to talk amongst themselves. Topics covered a broad spectrum, from headlines to boyfriends. Pearl Hume recalled the time a friend asked her about her honeymoon. Pearl said, "I went out west." Her friend said, "Where did you go?" Pearl's answer of "to Delphos" made her co-workers break out laughing. Sometimes, the women would even sing. Observers often took the singing as a sign of contentment, (much as earlier observers had about slaves singing on a plantation) instead of seeing it for what it was, an attempt to make a hard day a little more bearable.
The women shared tips on how to juggle raising a family and working a full-time job. They learned how to lighten their loads from each other. Stella Sutton tells the story of how she learned from a co-worker. Stella used to iron everything she washed, even her dishtowels. When she found out her co-workers did not, "I never ironed another towel after that."
This camaraderie was not limited merely to conversation and singing. Special occasions, such as birthdays, were often celebrated by bringing in food. All the women would then enjoy the potluck. Jokes and pranks were also common and were used to relieve tension or boredom.
The ties formed at work were just as strong outside the walls of the factory. They intertwined with the ones in the community. For instance, job recruitment was often a matter of family relations or friendships. It was not so much a matter of what you knew, as much as it was WHO you knew. The women would often get together after work to go to the circus, Chautauqua sessions, dances at Hoover Park, or band concerts in the town square together. Lucille Speaker said, "That's where I had a lot of good friends, really, when I worked in the cigar factory." These friendships were vital and fundamental to women's culture, and the women who worked at the DWG fondly recall them to this day.
The creation of a strong sense of being part of a group helped lead to a growing solidarity among the women. This solidarity was soon being focused against the injustices the women saw. A strong labor movement sprang up, and the women began fighting for equality. They would win, too, that victory that they so deserved.
Through all its evolutions, DWG was very well know for its quality cigars, especially its two flaghsip cigars, the San Felice and the El Verso. It survived, and thrived, even when other factories were disappearing by the hundreds. This is because of the quality product that it produced. The cigars it produced were only that good because of the workers with which it was blessed. Sometimes, the employees, both female and male, were very good in spite of the factory and management, but they were always good. Though the San Felice and the El Verso live to this day, The DWG Cigar Factory does not. It was open for 105 years, which is impressive for any business, but especially for a cigar factory in the United States. When it closed its doors in 1990, not only did a wonderful piece of Lima history end, although that is certainly true, but an important piece in U.S. women's history ended with it.
Jud Shelnutt, "Henry Deisel Rolled First Cigars in Home", Lima Citizen, Sunday, August 11, 1963.
Patricia A. Cooper, Once a Cigar Maker, (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1987) 67-69.